A contested election. Out of control pandemic numbers. Unemployment. Turmoil.
These are the times we are living in right now. As I write this, there are more people in the hospital with Covid-19 than at any point in the pandemic. In El Paso, there are more people hospitalized than there are in several states. Grim warnings about the holidays and the danger they pose make our regular family get togethers even more complicated. Everything feels so out of control, because it mostly is.
There are some things we do have control over. One of these is your reaction to those who have family members who are fighting the coronavirus or have a family member who died from it. I can’t promise I have always had the correct reaction to news of this sort, but my own experience with this, and with my experience many years ago when my mother was dying of cancer, helped me understand some of the things you shouldn’t say.
I have sadly listened as friends and family members have recounted some of the callous things people have said to them. “Did they take HCQ? That might have helped them.” “How do you know they really died from Covid? The doctors are lying about it to make money.” Or the always classic, “I don’t think that is what (insert family member’s name here) died from. People are putting that on death certificates because they hate Trump.”
Even if every one of these statements were valid (and I can assure you, they’re not), what in the world would make you think this is comforting to grieving people?
When my mother died from cancer, she was 50. A beautiful, elegant and quiet woman, she really never looked a day over 40. I was 21 when she died, and now that I am older, I understand even better how young she really was and how much of her life was snuffed out by cancer. I remember the words of well meaning friends that, in their efforts to say something comforting, instead said things that were tortuous at the time. For example:
“Your mom looks so good. Surely she isn’t really that sick (said two days before her death).” “Well, you knew her death was coming, right? That must have helped.” “Don’t you think your mom would want you to move on after her death? She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
I could give you more, but you get the idea. I truly believe all of the things people said were said out of love and trying to help, but the truth is, there are no words, no pat answers, that can make the grief and helplessness better. What most people meant to help usually came off as dismissive. The only things people said that were of comfort were things like, “I love you and your family.” “I’m so sorry.” or, “I thought a lot of your mom. I am praying for you all.”
Relating all of this to the comfort of our friends and acquaintances who are going through Covid in a more personal way than you are: if you truly want to comfort someone, but don’t know what to say: nothing is better than saying something you shouldn’t. Relating how most of the people you know that had Covid were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms only makes things worse. Asking tons of specific questions about treatment is often exhausting to the person answering all of those questions. And if you are going to bring up your own politicized views about covid to a grieving person, just go ahead and slap them in the face while your saying them, because that is exactly what it feels like.
If you really want to help someone, and we now all know someone who has lost a loved one to this disease, try following the mitigation efforts so we can put this behind us. Acknowledge their grief instead of trying to minimize it. Send a card. Show support. If you’re a praying person, pray for comfort for those affected. And try your best not to stick your foot in your mouth and make someone who is already heartsick feel even worse. I can’t promise I will always succeed, but I am going to give it my best effort. I hope you will, too.